Last month, I was lucky enough to attend an international veterinary conference. I don’t get to do that very often, although I do attend conferences in North America frequently. International conferences have quite a few attractions but two of the most important are that you get to hear about new information from outside North America and you also get a chance to talk with interesting people about their ideas, wishes and plans.
This conference really highlighted for me the difference between North America and other parts of the world in their attitudes towards infectious diseases of cattle. Some countries looked at how much the infectious diseases like BVD, IBR and leukosis (EBL) cost their industry. They decided they would be much better off if they completely eradicated those diseases rather than just continued to live with them while trying to reduce those costs. Farmers in Canada and the United States have pretty much the attitude that they would rather spend to control than to get rid of a disease.
In Canada (and mostly in the U.S. too), we got rid of diseases like Brucellosis and Tuberculosis but those were different. Those bacteria can cause people to be sick too, not just cattle, so the eradication was mandated by the federal government. The federal government set up a system to get rid of those diseases and systems to help make sure they stayed out of Canada. There hasn’t been the same interest to tackle diseases that are important just to agriculture with no direct human health impact.
BVD, IBR and EBL are each caused by viruses that are mainly but not exclusively carried by cattle. We understand enough about how some like BVD are maintained in the cattle population that we can set up a system to find the cattle that carry BVD and remove them. Once all the carriers are removed then BVD should be gone too. Of course, you need to set up a system to make sure BVD is truly gone and a way to control any chance that it could be brought back into the country — we do that for other diseases already.
The way that IBR and BLV are carried means that you can’t use the exact same methods that are used to get rid of BVD but we have the tools to eradicate those two viruses too. We know that will work because other countries have done it.
Right now, New Zealand is in the process of trying to get rid of Mycoplasma bovis. This microbe is more like a bacterium than a virus but it is very costly. It causes health problems that range from pneumonia to mastitis. It is not easy to treat infected cattle either. At one time, New Zealand was free from Mycoplasma bovis but somehow it got into the country. Dairy farmers there decided they were better off to invest in trying to get rid of it than to try to live with it.
While other countries have gotten rid of diseases like BVD, IBR and EBL, there are not many that managed (or have even attempted) to get rid of Mycoplasma bovis. There are lots of people who are rooting for them to succeed . . . and to show us that it can be done.
It takes a real sense of collective benefit for an industry to decide that it should eradicate a cattle disease. I remember when Scotland was trying to decide whether they should get rid of BVD, one topic of discussion was if producers should be free to not participate in the eradication program. If a large percentage of farmers committed to get rid of BVD, then all farmers would likely benefit. So should only some farmers carry the entire costs when almost everyone would benefit? You can bet there were farmers with pretty strong views on both sides.
Another topic that was pretty controversial was whether farmers who didn’t want to be part of the eradication program would be allowed to potentially re-infect farms that had already eradicated BVD. Early on in their BVD eradication program, farmers in Sweden had decided that farms didn’t have to participate in eradication but they would have mandated restrictions on how they could manage and move their cattle.
In both these situations, the industries themselves worked out what they wanted to do. After that, there were different levels of government involvement in different countries. In all cases, though, it was the members of the industry that made the first decisions that they wanted to address the animal health (and production) issue through eradication rather than other ways.
Dr. Robert Tremblay is a veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.